Developer: Tom Happ
Publisher: Tom Happ
Platform: PlayStation 4
(PS Vita, PC coming at a later date)
Release Date: March 31, 2015
ESRB: N/A (E10+ suggested)
I“ve probably mentioned this before, but I was a SEGA Channel kid growing up. I loved my Sega Genesis, and as a result, got a service that allowed me to play fifty games a month. In exchange, though, my parents never bought me a Super Nintendo back then. There was an entire library of games I missed out on until purchasing a Wii in 2006 and immersing myself in its Virtual Console. Super Metroid was one of them. I don“t have the nostalgia that a great number of folks do for that game. And that“s why I can tell you, honestly: Super Metroid is the action-game all the others since have aspired to topple.
Today, Metroid co-creator Yoshio Sakamoto“s game design philosophy is often emulated. And when a person or team is creative enough, they can spin ideas brought forth by older action games into something completely new and original. Enter Axiom Verge, created by Tom Happ, who developed, designed and composed everything in this game on his own over five years.
A failed scientist named Trace dies in an accident, and awakens in an alien world. He has no idea how he got there, and...wellâ€¦â€realityâ€ as a construct seems a little broken. As Trace, you explore this new world—and literally break it as well. There's certainly an equal balance of obliterating everything in your path and learning about the...forces at work that brought you there.
You can tell something is amiss from the moment you face the game's first major boss. Almost everything you fight insists you“re a demon, after all. As you continue to play, the plot that started out pretty simple reveals a surprising amount of depth. Whether you“re finding hidden journals or just advancing the story, you“ll learn that Axiom Verge is a game that“s not afraid to school you a little on physics and other complexities during its many twists and turns. When describing the script of the game, "highly intelligent" comes to mind. It“s not going to drown you in scientific terms; don“t get me wrong. However, the fact that the game isn“t afraid to express complex ideas makes Trace a better character. Plus, the guy has a sharp sense of sarcasm. The story is but one of the elements that makes Axiom Verge a truly unforgettable experience.
Every piece and part that makes up the game's overall presentation boasts a similar quality. The music isn“t unnecessarily complex; it“s very grounded in the 16-bit era and channels Kenji Yamamoto successfully, while coming into its own and making the game“s world that much better. The game“s sense of design feels fresh as well. I like that its visuals aren't concerned with convincing you Axiom Verge belongs on the Super Nintendo. No, this title feels right at home on PlayStation 4 (and eventually Vita and PC). Everything else that makes up the game“s design, from its sound effects (some alluding to days gone by, and some...well, kind of terrifying if I“m being honest) to its menus and maps...it“s perfection. It“s Super Metroid without actually being Super Metroid... and that“s the highest compliment I can give.
The gameplay is what“s going to keep you at Axiom Verge for hours on end, though. I can“t realistically pin a completion time on this experience because there“s a Speedrun option on the title screen and I“ve spent at least sixteen hours exploring the map, getting stuck and unstuck, celebrating when I finally figured out how to reach various points, and more.
That“s one element of the gameplay that I can springboard from right away: there is a keen sense of exploration. Save Points are very, very fairly placed, and you“re encouraged to go beyond where you should to get better weapons, power-ups and more. There are so many secrets, and unlike some action-games I“ve played as of late... the weapons that are well-hidden are actually worth going after! You won“t be spending the game just shooting stuff. Without spoiling anything, there are weapons that will make the small child in you shout with glee as you obliterate foes that once posed a challenge to you. Only if you work towards them, though.
I haven“t even elaborated on how this game messes with actual conventions. You“ll notice parts of the game that seem glitched, then gain an item that lets you actually derezz those glitches. You can turn bubbles into platforms by glitching them out so you can ride on top of them as they float to the ceiling. You also gain the means to "glitch" Trace himself; he can teleport through walls! Further into the game, you're quite capable of phasing upwards to extend your jump, as well as downward.
This combination of glitching/derezzing the world around you—as well as phasing through the world around you—is a concept that revolutionizes the typical Metroid-like fare. How many other games allow you to, quite literally, phase through the bottom of a map in places to access powerful upgrades? What about phasing through the wall to a part of the "map" that's not even recorded?
Honestly? I know a game is something special when I'm actually finding myself holding back my words, so I spoil as little as possible for those interested in giving it a try.
I wish I could go on forever about how well this game works, philosophically. Happ knew exactly what he wanted in his dream game, and then sought to achieve it. The enemies start out simple to fool you into thinking you“re playing the typical Metroid game, then you“ll go into the next room and have this ultra-terrifying white humanoid thing screech at you, then bolt towards you at full speed, jump at you when you try to avoid it, and more. Several of the enemy designs are natural evolutions of the typical flora and fauna of an action game.
You go into a game like this with a set of expectations when it comes to foes and bosses alike. Axiom Verge messes with those expectations in ways that will leave you elated, not frustrated. Speaking of bosses—there are typically save points right before them, so you can spend some time learning their tricks. Also, there usually will be patterns that will allow you to triumph over them without scratching your head for too long.
I may have played this game for far longer than most should, as I got used to things. I struggled sometimes, trying to figure out what to do next, only to have the solution right there the whole time. Even though I“ve spent sixteen hours conquering the main story when it can probably be done in a fraction of that timeâ€¦ I was having an absolute blast. There was always a smile on my face as the game continued to blow away my expectations, over and over again.
It“s all so well-made that I was never mad at it, even when Trace (or the game itself) was being intentionally cross. Axiom Verge isn“t just a game where I slap a perfect score on it and call it a mark of mastery. I dare say it“s a new paradigm in the genre, and that teams of all shapes and sizes should follow Tom Happ“s example, like Sakamoto before him.
+ A phenomenal presentation that isn't concerned with being stuck in the past, plus a story that messes with perceptions almost as much as the gameplay.
+ There's so much to do! Weapons are versatile, secrets are plentiful (and worth pursuing), and there are multiple ways to approach combat.
+ This is a game that's not afraid to be challenging, but it plays fair. Enemies and bosses alike are tough, but not frustrating or cheap.
- As with any Metroid-inspired game, you can definitely get stuck. Solutions aren't unnecessarily cruel, though.
Overall Score: 10 (out of 10)
Axiom Verge is the result of one man's quest to create the Metroid game he's dreamed of playing. There's no question in my mind; Tom's dream came true.
Disclosure: This review is based on downloadable code provided by the publisher.